Saturday night, in the middle of watching the Boston Pops Greatest Hits concert and July 4th fireworks show on TV, my cellphone unexpectedly beeped that a text message was coming through. It was my friend Theresa in Baltimore, sending me a photo she’d just snapped down the block from her house in the waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point. At that moment, a crowd gathered, toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus, and tossed its pieces into the harbor.
This was, of course, just the latest in a series of attacks on statues and monuments erected around the country to honor individuals who helped shape America’s history. Civil war generals. European explorers. Even founding fathers.
For weeks now, the crowds in the streets have been mostly peaceful in demanding that our nation – its people, its leaders — acknowledge and reverse centuries of racism, both individual and systemic. But in some cases, anger and frustration have boiled over into zealotry – and these zealots are defacing or destroying whatever they can get their hands on.
I understand the anger and frustration. I understand the need for all of us to own up to the ugly underside of the successes of our country, which often have been achieved on the backs of people of color who have suffered generations of poverty and suppression. I understand that all of this has been made worse – a lot worse – by the twin catastrophies of the COVID pandemic and its economic devastation. Both have been more destructive in communities of color.
The pandemic and the loss of millions of jobs have laid bare the great and ever-increasing inequalities in our country in employment, education, and health care. People of color are most exposed in so-called “essential” jobs, from home health care workers to supermarket employees.
I get all that. But here’s my problem.
We as Americans need to have the opportunity for conversation – open and difficult conversation – about systemic racism.
We need to face the truths about our nation’s founding, and the way our government and our communities and our institutions since then have systematically discriminated against people of color. We need to find solutions that bring immediate relief to communities of color that have been impacted by these twin catastrophes – and provide long-term change.
But the zealots who have destroyed and defaced these monuments aren’t waiting for that conversation. They’re short-circuiting it. However noble their intentions and righteous their passion, they’ve taken from the rest of us the opportunity to be part of the process of change.
So I want to take a few minutes tonight to have that conversation.
The fact is that much of our history has been written from a particular perspective, one that often obscures difficult facts and promotes grandiose myths. But that’s true of all of human history – not just ours.
Don and I were watching a BBC special the other night on public TV featuring historian Dr. Lucy Worsley, who has for years has explored the big fibs about British and European history. She’s called out the Tudors’ rewriting of the Wars of the Roses to solidify their iffy claim to the British throne. She’s delved into the whitewashing of India’s forced subjugation to the British Empire under Queen Victoria.
The other night, she was slicing and dicing the falsehoods of the French revolution: the fake “let them eat cake” statement that was retrojected into the history books years later to justify the execution of Marie Antoinette; and the storming of the Bastille, which in fact held only a handful of criminals and zero political prisoners.
But the re-writing of history to erase its ugliest moments, promote unworthy ‘heroes’ and silence its victims goes way farther back than Tudor England. This week our Torah portion gives us its own lesson on zealotry. But maybe not the one you think.
This week we have Part Two of what I call the “spearchucker” story. Last week, we saw the Israelites whoring with the Moabite women, who were tempting them to worship their gods. God ordered that the ringleaders be publicly impaled for their idolatry – and their leading others into sin. But nobody came forward. All they did was gather at the Tent of Meeting and weep.
Then an Israelite started cavorting with one of the Moabite women publicly, in full sight of everyone there.
One and only one person – Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron – grabbed a spear and chucked it through both of them – stopping a plague that God spread through the community as punishment for their sins.
This week, the parashah opens with God applauding Pinchas’s zealotry and bestowing upon him and his descendants a pact of priesthood for all time. More than that, God grants him a b’rit shalom – a pact of peace. An unusual gift for an act of violence.
The medieval commentators generally accept the story on face value. God clearly states, they write, that “Pinchas . . . has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying . . . his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in My passion.” He saved the people, write the commentators, and so nobody should despise Pinchas, because without his zealotry, everyone would have died.
But the story is much more nuanced than that – and questions about Pinchas and his reward arise in many places and in many ways.
First is the division of the story – the spear-chucking last week, the reward saved for this week. The division of the Torah portions comes from the Aleppo Codex, a 10th-century bound manuscript of the so-called Masoretic Hebrew Bible. From this, Maimonides then created the list of parashiyot that we still use today.
We don’t know why the Masoretes, working in Israel between the 6th and 10th centuries, divided the portions as they did. But some later sages took this clear separation of the act from the reward as a sign that God was not all that pleased with Pinchas’s action after all.
This notion is emphasized in the very way that the word shalom in God’s b’rit shalom is traditionally written in Torah scroll itself. The letter vav is distorted. It’s actually broken. And this is designed to teach us that God’s covenant of peace with Pinchas is based on distortion and broken-ness.
One sage who goes by the name of B. Y. Natan takes it further: Responding to violent zealotry with a gift of peace, he writes, “hints to us that the way of peace is always better and more effective than that of zealotry and war.”
How does this apply to what’s going on in our country right now?
Let’s turn to BeMidbar Rabbah, the midrashic commentary on the Book of Numbers, where the rabbis zero in on a phrase at the end of last week’s reading:
“When Pinchas, son of Eleazer son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he got up from within the congregation and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite man.”
He got up from within the congregation. What, exactly was the congregation, and what was it doing? According to the midrash, “He saw the incident and he was reminded of the halakhah: One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by zealous avengers . . . they [the judges] were deliberating about the matter, if the Israelite was liable for death or not. Pinchas stood up from within the congregation and he volunteered and took a spear in his hand.”
So the Israelite judges – the guys whose job is to decide the law and its application – have convened to talk about how to punish this Israelite man, and whether the death penalty applies. Rather than waiting for their decision, Pinchas, in a moment of zealotry, took matters and a spear into his own hands.
In other words, Pinchas short-circuited the conversation and the deliberative process – and executed the couple himself.
And that’s just what is happening in our streets today. Discussion and collaborative decision-making are obliterated in a moment of zealotry. And, frankly, I don’t think that’s right or fair. We have to have these conversations if we – all of us – are going to be part of the solution.
We have to face our history and own up to it. But we also have to be willing to recognize that history and historical figures often are far more nuanced than the zealots acknowledge. And that should be part of our conversation, too.
Sometimes the solution is obvious. Jason Gay, my go-to sports theologian, wrote this week about the pressure on my hometown Washington Redskins to finally change their name:
“Sure, there will be agitation. There always is,” Gay wrote. “There will be the usual huffing about political correctness and ‘virtue signaling’ and the end of the world as we know it, but this isn’t politics, or ‘virtue signaling,’ or the end of the world as we know it. This isn’t a ‘both sides’ debate; this isn’t some cynical argument about freedom of expression. This is acknowledging the obvious. It’s got to go. It should have been gone a long time ago.”
So it is, as well, with every single statue and monument commemorating a leader of the Confederacy. First, because their twin causes were the perpetuation of slavery and the destruction of our country.
Second, because they all date from the post-war Reconstruction and the Jim Crow period after that, well into the 20th century, when southern states came up with new and ugly and often violent ways to oppress black Americans. And they were a tool in that oppression.
But I agree with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom I had the honor of hearing in an on-line presentation this week. We have to distinguish, she said, our presidents from the Confederate leaders who were determined to destroy the Union. Our presidents may have done things we consider disappointing – yes, Washington and Jefferson did own slaves – but we have to look at these men in the totality of what they did.
And that, I think, is where conversation comes in – serious and respectful conversation. All of us need to know more about our nation’s true history – stripped of the myths and legends. But all of us also need to acknowledge the nuances of our history, and the complex personalities and the times in which these men lived and what went into the choices they made.
I have a great deal of respect for the zeal that drives the protests that have galvanized such great change so quickly. But, as our Torah teaches us, there’s a difference between zeal and zealotry. Zeal can lead to productive and collaborative work that allows us to move forward into the future together. Zealotry cuts that process off – and actually impedes the advancements we hope to make. Zeal inspires us onward together. Zealotry fractures us and makes progress much, much harder.
As Rabbi B. Y Natan said, “the way of peace is always better and more effective than zealotry and war.” Let our future be a shalom that is not false or forced or bent or broken. Let it be true and lasting.
Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin
 “Lucy Worsley’s Royal Myths and Secrets,” aired on PBS Sundays, June 21, June 28, July 5, 2020.
 Torah Gems Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 134
 BeMidbar Rabbah 20:25.
 Jason Gay, “Hail to The Sadness Machine!” The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, p. A12.